(Paris) – French President François Hollande’s announcement on February 21, 2017, that France has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration is a strong signal to the international community and strengthens the legal protection for children and their education, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said today. By endorsing the declaration, a commitment to protect schools in times of conflict, France recognizes the importance of educational institutions to a country’s future.

French President François Hollance annonces France's endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration during the opening of the "Protect Children From War" inter-ministerial Conference co-organized by France and UNICEF in Paris, February 21, 2017.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

The decision followed several months of efforts by UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch to raise the French authorities’ awareness of the importance of this declaration to protect children caught up in conflicts.

“When troops attack or occupy schools, students and teachers are put in grave danger or are pushed out and deprived of their right to learn,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “By upholding its support to this declaration, France can use both its international leadership abilities and its instructions to its own peacekeeping troops to protect students and school staff in conflict zones around the world.”

France becomes the 58th country and the first permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to endorse this declaration, opening the way for other countries to do the same.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF France carried out communication campaigns to inform and mobilize the general public to support a government move to endorse the declaration. Two films (one by Human Rights Watch and one by UNICEF France) were created and broadcast on social media.

Around the world, schools are attacked or being occupied by military forces and armed groups in conflict zones. It endangers the lives of students, their teachers, and denies hundreds of thousands of children their right to education.

“Protecting schools can guarantee a better future for a country embroiled in conflict,” said Sébastien Lyon, director of UNICEF France. “Once the fighting is over, having an educated populace and functional education infrastructures can strengthen recovery and rebuilding and improve the chance of keeping the peace.”

The announcement of France’s endorsement of this declaration comes at a time when an international conference co-organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNICEF on protecting children from war is being held in Paris, on February 21. Its aim is to mobilize the attention and efforts of the international community to intensify collective action to prevent and put an end to serious attacks on children in armed conflicts.

Currently, one child in 10 lives in a country or zone affected by armed conflict. In recent years, schools have been deliberately attacked in several crises and continue to be occupied, destroyed, and used by armies in conflict zones, depriving many children of their education. Yet, even in conflict, the best interests of the child should be a priority, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said.

The Safe Schools Declaration is a non-binding agreement proposed for support by countries around the world that was opened for endorsement at an international conference in Oslo, Norway, in May 2015. Under the declaration, schools can be protected even if they have been deserted by students and staff, to avoid a lasting disruption of the country’s education service when it needs it most – during post-war reconstruction.

The 57 countries that had already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration include a little over half of the European Union member states, half of NATO member states, and 12 Francophone member states.

Several of the countries most affected by attacks on schools and military use of schools have also endorsed the declaration, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. A second conference on safety in schools will be organized by the Argentine government on March 28 and 29, 2017.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The Afghan government is failing to protect tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, from hazardous conditions in the workplace, in violation of Afghanistan’s labor laws.

Helal, 10, works as a brick maker at a brick kiln outside Kabul. He told Human Rights Watch that the brick mold is heavy and his hands hurt working with wet clay. Helal doesn’t go to school because he has to work. 

© 2016 Bethany Matta/Human Rights Watch

The 31-page report, “‘They Bear All the Pain’: Hazardous Child Labor in Afghanistan,” documents how child workers work dangerous jobs in Afghanistan’s carpet industry; as bonded labor in brick kilns; and as metal workers. They perform tasks that could result in illness, injury, or even death due to hazardous working conditions and poor enforcement of safety and health standards. Many children who work under those conditions combine the burdens of a job with school, or forego education altogether. Working compels many children in Afghanistan to leave school prematurely. Only half of children involved in child labor attend school. 

“Thousands of Afghan children risk their health and safety every day to put food on the family table,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Afghan government needs to do a better job of protecting its children – and the country’s future – by enforcing the law prohibiting dangerous work for children.”

The Afghan government is failing to protect tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, from hazardous conditions in the workplace, in violation of Afghanistan’s labor laws. 

The government has failed to enforce prohibitions against child labor in hazardous industries, and has stalled in its effort to overhaul its labor law to bring it into line with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. Government institutions responsible for enforcing the law often lack the capacity to inspect workplaces, with the result that children working in prohibited jobs go unnoticed and unprotected.

In 2014, the Afghan government published a list of 19 hazardous occupations prohibited for children. These jobs include carpet weaving, metal work, and brick making. While a lack of resources is an important factor in the persistence of child labor in hazardous industries, the Afghan government has also failed to enforce its labor laws through penalties for violators and a strategy to end exploitative labor conditions.

A brick kiln manager in Kabul told Human Rights Watch: “There are children here, starting from 10 years or 8 years of age to 15 or 16… They wake up at 3 in the morning and work until about evening… They complain of pain, but what can they do? The kids are here to make a living. They bear all the pain to do all the work.”

Extreme poverty often drives Afghan children into hazardous labor. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Landlessness, illiteracy, high unemployment, and continuing armed conflict in much of the country are among the most important factors contributing to chronic poverty and, as a result, child labor.

A 13-year-old metal worker in Kabul said, “My fingers have been cut from the sharp edges of the metal and slammed by the hammer. My finger has also been caught in the trimming-beading machine. When your nail gets hit by a hammer or caught in the machine, it becomes black and eventually falls off.”

Thousands of Afghan children risk their health and safety every day to put food on the family table. The Afghan government needs to do a better job of protecting its children – and the country’s future – by enforcing the law prohibiting dangerous work for children.

Phelim Kine

Deputy Director, Asia Division

While work that is appropriate to a child’s age and under healthy and safe conditions can be beneficial to the child’s development and allow them to contribute to their family’s basic needs, work that interferes with a child’s education, or is likely to jeopardize their health or safety, is generally considered “child labor” and is prohibited under international law.

Although pilot projects extending community-based schools to reach vulnerable children have been promising, support for these schools is inadequate to the need. Eradicating child labor in Afghanistan is not feasible so long as extreme poverty continues, but the government and its donors can take steps to protect children from the risks associated with working in particularly dangerous or unhealthy conditions.

Those steps include increasing the number of labor inspectors to adequately cover the entire country; giving priority to monitoring hazardous sectors; and offering the Afghan government targeted technical assistance in devising and implementing policies, standards, and regulations against child labor. Both the government and its foreign donors should devote more resources to expanding educational support to all working children.

The government has a legal obligation under international law to take immediate action to eradicate hazardous child labor. Both Afghanistan and its foreign donors should take urgent steps to protect children from the risks associated with working in particularly dangerous or unhealthy conditions.

“When children are of legal age and work in safe conditions, they can help provide vital livelihood support for many Afghan families,” Kine said. “But the Afghan government has an obligation to enforce the laws that protect children in the workplace, and ensure that they neither have to sacrifice their education or safety as the price for supporting their families.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Zama Neff is the executive director of the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch. She also co-chairs the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). Neff has conducted fact-finding investigations and is the author of reports and articles on a range of issues affecting children, including access to education, police violence, refugee protection, the worst forms of child labor, and discrimination against women and girls. She has published on op-ed pages in major international and US publications and speaks regularly to the media. During a sabbatical, she ran a protection monitoring team for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sri Lanka. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1999, Neff clerked for a US federal judge, advocated on behalf of immigrants and refugees in the US, and worked with community development and women's organizations in Honduras. She is a graduate of Davidson College and New York University School of Law.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Participants take part in the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem July 21, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

This week, the Israeli government opposed a petition submitted by the Association of Israeli Gay Fathers requesting that common-law and same-sex couples be allowed to adopt. The government said that it opposed changing the law because adoption by same-sex couples would place an “additional burden” on the child.

“The professional opinion of the Child Welfare Services supports preserving the existing situation” that the adopting couple consist of a man and a woman, the brief said. The government takes into account “the reality of Israeli society and the difficulty it may entail with regard to the child being adopted.”

In short, the government is saying that social prejudice could negatively affect children of same-sex couples. But perpetuating discrimination in the name of child welfare is an untenable approach. Barring children from being adopted into loving, supportive families on spurious grounds is hardly in the best interest of the child.

There is in any case no real evidence to support the government’s concerns, and ample reason to doubt them. More than 70 peer-reviewed scholarly studies from around the world have concluded that children of gay or lesbian parents fare as well as other children. While providing a range of protections to same-sex people, Israeli law only permits adoption by same-sex couples in specific restricted situations, such as when there is a previous connection between the child and the prospective adoptive parent or the prospective adoptive parent is the partner of the child’s biological parent.

Israel is a member of the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC), an international coalition of countries advocating equal rights for LGBTI people. On June 6, the Netherlands issued a statement on behalf of all the 35 member-countries at the 35th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The coalition said that there is room for improvement among member countries to achieve full equality for LGBTI people: “We stand ready to learn from legislative processes and other positive examples aimed at strengthening the protection and promotion of equal rights for LGBTI persons and to share our experiences in repealing discriminatory laws, improve responses to hate-motivated violence, and promoting legal protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

There is still time for the Israeli government to reconsider its position. Keeping best practices in mind, the Israeli government should look at the 25 countries in the world that have already allowed adoption by same-sex couples, including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Canada, and Spain, and reverse its decision to continue barring same-sex couples from adopting children.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Entrance into the Moria hotspot in Lesbos, Greece, where children registered as adults are accommodated with unrelated adult single men, exposed to very poor living conditions, including overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and frequent incidents of violence.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

(Athens) – Unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek island of Lesbos are being incorrectly identified as adults and housed with unrelated adults, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and unable to access the specific care they need, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The misidentification of unaccompanied migrant kids on Lesbos as adults leads to real problems, including lumping them together with unrelated adults and denying them the care they need,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities need to take responsibility for properly identifying unaccompanied children and providing them the protection and care every child needs.”

On visits to Lesbos island from May 22 to 28 and June 27 to 30, 2017, Human Rights Watch spoke with 20 children, some as young as 15, who said they had been wrongly registered as adults by the Greek authorities.

Flawed and inadequate procedures leave unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek island of Lesbos housed with unrelated adults, vulnerable to abuse, and unable to access the specific care they need.

Under Greek and international law, unaccompanied children are entitled to special care and protection. But the flawed age assessment procedures that are being followed in practice mean that some of these children are wrongly deemed adults during registration, despite an assurance by Greek officials to Human Rights Watch that a proper, multidiscipline procedure is followed. Other children claim to be adults, believing it will allow them to avoid detention or because they follow bad advice from adults, but then realize they have made a mistake and try to persuade the authorities to register them correctly. They can spend months trying to change their official status, and in the meantime often continue to be treated as adults, or reach adulthood, known as “aging out,” while waiting for their correct age to be assessed.

Human Rights Watch found that officials who register new arrivals sometimes arbitrarily record children’s ages as older than the children themselves give. Authorities also often require unaccompanied children to receive cursory dental examinations at the local hospital as a form of age assessment, following which authorities may insist the child is in fact an adult and register them as such. Human Rights Watch found this occurs despite a 2013 ministerial decision setting out a multidiscipline approach to age assessment, with medical examinations as an option of last resort and despite an assurance from Greece’s Reception and Identification Service (RIS), a Greek government agency, that the principle of the best interest of the child always prevails.

On the other hand, reception service officials do not usually question unaccompanied children who claim to be adults even when their appearance strongly suggests that they are well under 18. In practice, authorities fail to provide children with adequate information about their rights during the reception and identification process on the islands and take no steps to verify whether an individual claiming to be an adult is a child, creating a risk that trafficked children will not be identified and protected from further harm.

While registered unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, Greece has a chronic shortage of space. Pending placement in a shelter, the authorities often detain unaccompanied migrant children in police stations, immigration detention facilities, and European Union-managed asylum processing centers. As of June 20, 1,149 unaccompanied migrant children were on the waiting list for shelter, including 296 detained in such facilities.

Coastal area near Panagiouda village on Lesbos, Greece, one of the islands to which many asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, have been confined with the aim of returning them to Turkey following a deeply flawed March 2016 EU deal.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

The problem has grown more acute since the arrival of more than 1 million people in the Greek islands in 2015 and 2016. Border closures in countries to the north have effectively trapped asylum seekers and migrants in Greece, and a deeply flawed EU deal with Turkey, signed in March 2016, has led Greece to restrict asylum seekers to the Greek islands with the aim of returning them to Turkey.

Nongovernmental organizations on Lesbos told Human Rights Watch they have identified at least 60 people registered as adults who claim to be children.

Children registered as adults are left to fend for themselves and are vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, and other abuse. They live in official and unofficial sites with unrelated adult single men; are exposed to inhumane living conditions, including overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and frequent incidents of violence; and are unable to go to school or otherwise access education. They have little or no access to care, protection, or specialized services, and are excluded from accommodation for unaccompanied children.

Once the Greek authorities register unaccompanied children as adults for whatever reason, it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to change their status. Even when nongovernmental groups identify children as wrongly registered as adults, it can take months to overcome the burdensome bureaucratic procedures to establish their real age and register them as children. The process of being recognized as children took so long in some cases Human Rights Watch examined that the children had turned 18 during the intervening period. This undermined their ability to reunite with family members in other EU countries or to get specialized housing or services for children.

Statements from these children about how they feel suggest the situation in which they find themselves in Greece is causing psychological harm and exacerbates existing mental health conditions, Human Rights Watch said. All the children interviewed reported experiencing psychological distress, including symptoms such as anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, and loss of appetite. Two children reported harming themselves.

Authorities in Greece should urgently improve the quality of their age assessment procedures, bringing them into line with international best practices, Human Rights Watch said. Greek authorities should take steps to identify children, give children whose age is disputed the benefit of the doubt in close cases, and ensure that unaccompanied children have access to decent accommodation where they can receive care, education, counseling, legal aid, guardianship, and other essential services. Those who are determined to be over 18 should be accommodated in special housing for young adults and given access to adequate services, including psychosocial support and mental health services.

The European Commission and the European Asylum Support Office should make use of their presence on the islands to ensure that the Greek authorities’ age assessment methods and procedures fully comply with the legal safeguards provided by Greek and EU law, and that children are given the benefit of the doubt where results are inconclusive. The EU emergency relocation mechanism should also be urgently extended to unaccompanied children identified on the Greek islands, irrespective of nationality, and EU member states should accelerate relocation of unaccompanied migrant children.

“Vulnerable kids in Greece who have endured dangerous journeys far from their families should not have to fight for months just to prove they are children,” Cossé said. “Greece should do a better job identifying these children so they get the care they need and deserve.”

“Amadou,” a 16-year-old unaccompanied boy from West Africa standing by two other people in hammocks in Lesbos, Greece.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

Registering Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Greek authorities formally registered over 1,800 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children arriving in Greece in the first five months of 2017. Many of them are from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, countries beset by armed conflict and serious human rights abuses. Some of the others, such as children from Pakistan, were escaping discrimination and poverty.

Greek legislation recognizes the government’s obligations to care for and protect unaccompanied migrant children. Under Greek law the government is supposed to appoint a guardian for each child to represent them in any legal or judicial proceeding, to hear the child’s views prior to any decision-making, and to act in their best interests. But Human Rights Watch found that authorities in Lesbos often register unaccompanied migrant children as adults. Invisible as children, and outside of care arrangements, these children are particularly vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and abuse.

The Greek Reception and Identification Service (RIS) is required to provide for the reception of third-country nationals entering the islands under conditions that guarantee human rights and dignity in accordance with international standards. New arrivals are brought to EU-managed asylum processing centers on the Greek islands, the so-called hotspots, for identification and registration.

The RIS is responsible for identifying and registering people who belong to “vulnerable” groups upon their arrival, which should include unaccompanied migrant children. The agency is supported in doing this by the Greek police; EU agencies, such as the border agency Frontex; UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency; the International Organization for Migration; and medical nongovernmental organizations. RIS is responsible for referring unaccompanied migrant children to social services and providing them with information on their rights, including their right to seek asylum. In a July 10 letter to Human Rights Watch, RIS said that particular attention is given to the procedures for unaccompanied children who “receive specific information adapted to their age or maturity about their legal status and the procedural possibilities offered at subsequent phases of the process.” In practice on Lesbos, though, Human Rights Watch found that RIS is failing to meet its responsibilities toward these children.

“Zahid,” a boy from Pakistan who said he was 16 when he arrived on Lesbos in March 2016, described the inadequate procedure during his first encounter with the authorities:

When I arrived, I was 16 but they [authorities] wrote on the papers 19. They didn’t even take me to the doctor. …. They asked me my name, my age, and then they took my fingerprints…. I told them I was 16. They separated me from the other people and took me where the unaccompanied children are [a restricted section for unaccompanied children inside the Moria hotspot]. They kept me there for 10 or 15 days and then they took me out again. They never explained to me why, they just took me out. Then I stayed with other people, outside [the children’s section]…. I don't know why they changed my age. I asked them many times and the only thing they told me is to sign some papers.  

Fifteen months after his arrival, Zahid, today 17, was still being treated as an adult by the authorities and his real age hadn’t been formally recognized.

“Amadou,” a 16-year-old unaccompanied boy from West Africa playing with a soccer ball in front of a container on Lesbos, Greece. Amadou, on Lesbos since October 2016, said the lack of adequate information and fear of detention, made him register as an adult but after a few days when he realized he made a mistake he was unable to register his real age.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

Children Who Claim to be Adults

Human Rights Watch spoke with six children in Lesbos who said they falsely claimed to be adults when they arrived in Greece. They did so, they said, because they feared detention or because they heard false information from smugglers or other migrants that registration as a child would lead to worse outcomes, such as separation from friends and distant family. When they realized the unpleasant consequences of being registered as an adult or because, finally, they were correctly advised, they said they told officials that they wanted to change their age to the correct one, but faced many obstacles.

“Hassan,” a boy from Afghanistan, said he was 15 when he arrived in June 2016:

Before doing my registration, several Afghans told me ‘don’t give your real age because they are going to keep you in the children’s section.’ … They [the authorities] told me ‘you look underage, if you have papers show them to us.’ I said I don’t have any papers and because the others had told me to not say I’m a minor, I said I’m an adult.

He said it took two other unrelated adults traveling with him to say he is an adult to convince the authorities. The inadequacy of identification procedures means that there is a serious risk that trafficked children are not recognized as such.

Hassan, who is now 16, lived for more than eight months with the general population of the Moria camp, mainly unrelated adult single men. At the time of our interview, in May, he had been living for two months in a protected area within the Moria hotspot that accommodates young men between the ages of 18 to 22 and some of those whose ages are disputed, run by the RIS. He said his age had been formally recognized by the Greek Asylum Service (GAS), in the context of the asylum process, but was still pending recognition by the RIS.

“[RIS told me] ‘You are a guest in our space and we are not responsible for you anymore.’ I just wanted to know what will happen to me and whether I’ll be transferred to a house [for unaccompanied children] and go to school.”

According to nongovernmental groups and children interviewed, when detention measures for unaccompanied children were relaxed on the island of Lesbos at the end of 2016, and children were allowed to go in and out of the section for unaccompanied migrant children, many children who had initially given a false age and registered as adults because of fear of detention said they changed their minds, wanting to register their real age. Others sought to do so when they received proper information from nongovernmental groups, which instructed them to tell the truth.

Rubber boats full of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving on the shore of Lesbos Island, Greece.

© 2015 Human Rights Watch

Inadequate Age Assessment

When authorities are in doubt as to whether a person is a child, Greek law requires that they must first give that person the benefit of the doubt, operating on a presumption of childhood, and second, perform a comprehensive age determination.

UNHCR and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have instructed countries not to base age determinations solely on the child’s physical appearance or on a single medical test, but also to consider psychological maturity and the margin of error of medical exams (which can be up to five years), and to give the benefit of doubt in making a determination. In ethical terms, such exams offer no medical benefit and the margin of error is so broad that the exams can’t establish what they are intended to do.

Best practices in age determination require a multidisciplinary approach. Any medical testing should be non-intrusive. X-rays for age determination are increasingly regarded as a violation of medical ethics because they expose children to radiological testing for no medical reason.

While an age determination process is ongoing, the person should not be detained or otherwise accommodated with unrelated adults.

As of October 2013, a decision by the health minister (MD 92490/2013) established for the first time an age assessment procedure applicable within the context of what was then called the First Reception Service, now the RIS.

The ministerial decision says that in cases in which there is justifiable doubt about the age of a third-country national, and the person may possibly be a child, they are to be referred to the RIS medical control and psychosocial support team for an age assessment. Initially, the age assessment will be based on physical appearance, such as height, weight, body mass index, voice, and hair growth, following a clinical examination by a pediatrician. In case the person’s age cannot be adequately determined, the psychologist and the social worker will assess the person’s cognitive, behavioral, and psychological development.

If a pediatrician is not available or the interdisciplinary staff cannot reach any firm conclusions – and only as a measure of last resort, the decision says – the person shall be referred to a public hospital for specialized medical examinations, such as dental or wrist X-rays. Staff there are to explain clearly their aims and the procedures to the person being examined.

In a July 10 letter to Human Rights Watch, RIS said that, “In any case, the principle of the child’s best interests, equal treatment, and proportionality must prevail. During the age assessment procedure as well as in case of doubts after its completion, the minority presumption prevails.”

Human Rights Watch found that the age assessment procedure provided in Greek law is not followed in practice on Lesbos. All 14 people interviewed who told the authorities they were under 18 when they arrived said they were registered as adults following a cursory age assessment, which in most cases consisted of a visit to the local hospital and a quick examination of their teeth. None of the children who had gone through this medical examination had first, or indeed ever, been interviewed by a psychologist or a social worker for an age assessment. Even though the procedure provided in Greek law had not been followed, RIS registered them as adults.

“Akash,” who is from Bangladesh and said he turned 18 in March, arrived on Lesbos in the summer of 2016, when he was 17. He said the authorities registered him as 18 following a quick visit to the hospital. “In the beginning, they wrote I was 17 but then they took me to the doctor and wrote down 18.” He said:

When they took me to the doctor, the doctor examined my teeth in order to define my age. But I don’t understand. There are people who have their wisdom teeth at the age of 17, others at the age of 18 and others at the age of 22. The doctor just examined my teeth. They changed my age [to 18] and took me out [of the children’s section].

Akash said he lived for more than four months with the general population of the camp before being transferred to a protected area inside Moria run by the RIS for people between the ages of 18-22. In early June 2017, he was transferred again outside, with the general population, due to lack of space. His real age was never formally recognized. “I tried as much as I could, but they [authorities] never accepted my age,” he said.

Contesting Designation as an Adult

Once children are registered as adults, either following a cursory age assessment procedure, or because they initially claimed they were adults, it is difficult if not impossible for them to change their status to that of a child.

Under Greek law, after a RIS age assessment procedure is completed, the person should be informed in a language they understand about the reasons for the decision. They have a right to appeal within 10 days, but RIS requires anyone who files an appeal to provide an original ID or original passport proving their age, which should be officially translated or verified, within this period.

All children interviewed said they faced practical difficulties in getting identification documents proving their age within the 10-day period. Human Rights Watch found that all appeals brought by children interviewed, were rejected by RIS. In rejecting the appeals, RIS disregarded the proven and objective difficulties for children to verify or officially translate the documents or to get legal assistance.

Some children said they had no parents or relatives in their home countries to provide the documents, and others had refugee profiles that could put them at risk if they contacted their embassies or relatives in their home countries.

For most, their only chance to seek to establish their age was at a later stage, during the asylum interview, conducted either by Greek Asylum Service (GAS) staff or officers of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Greek law sets out guarantees for children in that procedure, including the appointment of a guardian to protect the child’s rights and best interests throughout the age determination procedure, and the guarantee that a person who claims to be a child should be treated as such until the completion of the age determination procedure. The law also explicitly provides the applicant with the benefit of the doubt even after the conclusion of the procedure if the person’s age has not definitively been determined.

Human Rights Watch found that when it comes to children who have been wrongly registered as adults by RIS, the asylum service does not deviate from RIS findings unless explicit proof is provided. In a July 12 letter to Human Rights Watch, the asylum service confirmed that it cannot change data recorded by RIS and the police during initial registration “unless the applicant produces compelling evidence (e.g. an original passport not presented to RIS or the police) to the contrary.” The procedure before the asylum service can last for months, and while it is ongoing, children interviewed by Human Rights Watch were treated as adults.

“Anush,” a boy from Afghanistan who said he initially registered as an adult in August 2016, tried to get his real age – 16 – recognized during his asylum interview in February 2017:

Because I told them I am a child, they didn’t ask me many questions. Basically, they asked me why I came from Turkey and didn’t stay there…. The interview lasted for an hour. They asked ‘Why didn’t you stay in Turkey? Why you didn’t go to UNHCR offices and register there?’ I told them that when I was in Turkey, a guy [smuggler] had me as some kind of a prisoner and also because I am under age I couldn’t have access to school or go to the hospital.

A worker with a nongovernmental group supporting “Anush” with his case said:

He provided his original birth certificate more than two-and-a-half months ago. We went to EASO, provided it, and registered him as a minor. The document was checked by Frontex as to whether it’s original. After waiting for more than two months, Anush goes to renew his asylum card and is given an appointment for a second interview, as an adult…. We go again today, and the EASO officer says in front of Anush, and the lawyer, that we need to do a new registration and that they had forgotten we already submitted the papers. Today, Anush lost completely his trust in the system and us.

At the time of our interview, in May, Anush was living with the adult population of the Moria camp and his real age hadn’t been formally recognized yet.

In a July 12 letter to Human Rights Watch, the asylum service said that if it appears that the asylum seeker is a child traveling alone, its officers are instructed to treat the case as such. The officer is obliged to notify the public prosecutor, who will act as the temporary guardian, and the National Center for Social Solidarity. In more general terms, the asylum service said that its officers are instructed to conduct the asylum interview always bearing in mind the best interest of the child.

Children at Risk

Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable migrants in the world; international and European human rights law, as well as EU law, recognizes that vulnerability, and obliges countries to provide unaccompanied children with care. International law stipulates that the child’s best interest is a primary consideration in any decision affecting the child and that children deprived of their family environment are entitled to special protection and assistance by the state.

The failure to carry out proper age and vulnerability assessments means that many children are not recognized as children. Most find themselves without appropriate accommodation and therefore sleep in conditions that are overcrowded, unhygienic, and a risk to their physical health and mental well-being. They stay in open spaces on the Greek islands in official and unofficial sites, share tents or container housing with adult strangers, and are exposed to frequent incidents of violence. They are unable to go to school or otherwise access education.

On an ad-hoc basis, and depending on capacity, authorities on Lesbos place people who are seeking to prove they are under 18 in protected areas within the Moria hotspot. Some of the children interviewed were accommodated there at the time of the interview. But increased arrivals and overcrowding have resulted in transfers of these children to places outside of the protected areas. Others have been living in the open space with unrelated adult single men since their arrival.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of children who may be registered as adults but who haven’t been identified by nongovernmental groups or others or otherwise made themselves known to the authorities and are not receiving the special protection and care to which they are entitled under Greek and international law.

Anthi Karangeli, the director of RIS, confirmed that the lack of dedicated space on the island for age-disputed cases is problematic. “We can provide them with special treatment to the extent that space allows us,” she said.

“Samil,” from Afghanistan, said he was 14 when he arrived in Lesbos. He said he spent more than nine months living with the general population in the camp. At the time of the interview in May, it had been a month since he had been transferred, along with his 19-year-old brother, to the section for unaccompanied children inside Moria. He said his real age was formally recognized by the asylum service at the end of April:

I spent nine months in the tent…and now I’ve been one month here [section for unaccompanied children]…. When we were living in the tent [with adults], every day we were living in fear because of the many fights. Intense fear. I’ve been injured on my shoulder during a fight. Our tent was in the middle and it had been broken and burned twice…. I’ve reached a point where I harmed myself three times.


The Greek government should:

  • Ensure that there are sufficient and suitable alternatives to detention and end the unjustified detention of unaccompanied children, which deters children from registering as such;
  • Establish suitable separate reception facilities for young adults and age-disputed cases on the Greek islands and mainland Greece, and in the meantime, ensure that there are adequate and protected places in existing facilities;
  • Train RIS officers conducting initial screening and other officials, including Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office staff, and Greek Asylum Service officers, to correctly identify unaccompanied children, trafficking victims, and children with special protection needs, and to refer them to services as warranted;
  • Ensure that qualified interpreters assist unaccompanied migrant children;
  • Provide unaccompanied children who are illiterate with verbal and age-appropriate information about their rights and entitlements in Greece as children;
  • Ensure that all age determination procedures use a multidisciplinary approach that does not rely solely on appearance or medical or dental examinations. In the limited instances in which medical tests are carried out, use non-intrusive and non-invasive examinations to the extent possible;
  • In the case of uncertainty, give children whose age is disputed the benefit of the doubt and treat them as children;
  • Treat those with age assessment pending cases before the Greek Asylum Service as children, until their case has been finally resolved;
  • Re-examine cases of anyone assessed as an adult following inadequate and summary age determination procedures and until then, treat them as children;
  • Reform Greek law to ensure that anyone contesting designation as an adult has reasonable and adequate time to provide identification documents proving their age;
  • Provide free legal assistance for unaccompanied children, including those who claim to be under 18, in all administrative and judicial proceedings;

Expedite reunification processes for older children and, on an equitable basis, work with other EU member states to effect reunification in cases where the state’s delay has meant that children reach 18 during the process.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Flawed and inadequate procedures leave unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek island of Lesbos housed with unrelated adults, vulnerable to abuse, and unable to access the specific care they need.

Under Greek and international law, unaccompanied children are entitled to special care and protection. But flawed age assessment procedures mean that some of these children are wrongly deemed adults during registration. Other children claim to be adults believing it will allow them to avoid detention or because of bad advice by adults, but then realize they have made a mistake and try to persuade the authorities to register them correctly. They can spend months trying to change their official status, and in meantime often continue to be treated as adults.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Department of Education issued a gender-responsive basic education policy on June 29 that calls for an end to discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The policy is an important step toward providing equal rights for all students—but history shows it is unlikely to make a real difference for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth unless the DepEd transforms its promise into meaningful protection.

A poster for an anti-bullying campaign hangs on a wall at a secondary school outside Cebu, November 2016. 

© 2016 Ryan Thoreson/Human Rights Watch

The United Nations reports that bullying is the most prevalent form of violence against LGBT youth in educational settings in the Asia-Pacific. But the Philippines has been a leader in affirming the rights of LGBT youth. In 2012, the DepEd issued a child protection policy to prevent and address bullying in schools, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Protections were strengthened in 2013, when Congress enacted an Anti-Bullying Law with implementing rules and regulations that expressly prohibit bullying of LGBT youth—the first law of its kind in Asia. 

Still, LGBT students in the Philippines face serious problems that threaten their safety, health and right to education. In its new policy, the DepEd acknowledges that LGBT youth are still at high risk for physical, psychological and sexual violence in schools, and that despite existing legal protections, many LGBT students do not feel comfortable reporting incidents to school authorities.

The policy identifies steps that DepEd personnel and school administrators should take to make schools more gender-responsive. Among these steps are: training school personnel to respond to bullying and discrimination in schools; integrating gender, sexuality and human rights into teacher training programs and school curricula; and observing and celebrating Women’s Month, LGBT Pride Month, and Human Rights Month. These not only help keep students safe from violence, but also make them feel included and welcome in school environments.

The DepEd order is a timely affirmation that discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is unacceptable. But it needs teeth. As Human Rights Watch has documented, existing protections for LGBT youth in Philippine schools are admirable on paper, but too often are not carried out or enforced. Years after the Anti-Bullying Law was enacted, for example, many LGBT students are unaware that bullying is prohibited and do not believe they can do anything to stop it. Similarly, many teachers and administrators are unaware of the law or are simply indifferent to abuses against LGBT students—or, worse, participate in them, creating a climate in which students are especially vulnerable.

If the DepEd is serious about curbing discrimination in schools, it should develop actionable strategies to combat discrimination against and exclusion of LGBT youth. And it should aggressively carry out those strategies, ensuring that teachers and students are aware of best practices and have meaningful redress when their rights are violated.

There are concrete ways for the DepEd to turn platitudes into protections. Instead of merely condemning it, the DepEd should issue a standardized policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all public and private schools, and train school personnel to enforce it. In light of widespread abuse of transgender students—which can cause them to miss class, skip school, or even drop out—the DepEd should instruct all public and private schools to permit students to wear uniforms, sport hairstyles, and access facilities consistent with their self-expressed gender identity.

It should develop LGBT training for school counselors, issue print and web resources on LGBT issues, and foster LGBT peer support groups in secondary schools. And instead of merely affirming the value of inclusive curricula, it should incorporate LGBT-inclusive materials into the sexuality education modules that educators use.

Calling for gender-responsive education is a valuable step—but it is only the beginning of a strategy to eradicate discrimination against LGBT youth in schools. In the months to come, the DepEd should cement its position as a champion of the rights of all students by making those rights meaningful.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Childhood should be a time of innocence, play, and learning. But 15-year-old Subekti spent his shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, a city about a three-hour drive from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

Fifteen-year-old Subekti spent his childhood shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, Indonesia.

For the past six years, since he was 9, Subekti has had both his ankles tightly chained to the floor, just meters away from where his parents sleep. Unable to walk or move around, Subekti’s muscles have atrophied, leaving skeletal legs.

A neighbor alerted the media last week to draw attention to Subekti’s plight. When members of the nongovernmental National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak) visited, he reportedly begged them, “free me.”

His family told Komnas Anak that they shackled him to prevent him from disturbing the community. Subekti comes from a poor family where there is little awareness of mental health conditions. His parents believe he has a spiritual problem and consulted a faith healer but without success.

Subekti’s story is horrifying but not uncommon. More than 57,000 people in Indonesia with real or perceived mental health conditions have been subjected to pasung – shackled or locked up in confined space – at least once in their lives. Despite a 1977 government ban, the practice continues, fueled by the mistaken belief that mental health conditions are the result of possession by evil spirits, having sinned, or immoral behavior.

When Human Rights Watch researched the situation of people in pasung in Indonesia, families told us they felt they had little choice but to resort to shackling because they struggled to cope in the absence of government support and community mental health services.

Despite the media attention, eight days later, Subekti remains in chains. His house is only about a kilometer from the local government office, but authorities have not successfully convinced his parents to release him. He is now receiving mental health medication at home from a community health center.

In addition to providing him with counseling and other mental health services, the local social affairs office needs to ensure Subekti’s release. Local authorities should provide his family with the necessary support so that Subekti can live a normal childhood in the community.

While Human Rights Watch has documented Indonesian’s efforts to eliminate pasung, cases like Subekti’s remind us there is much work to be done to ensure no one lives a life in chains.  

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Clara is a community health worker’s dream client—she has absorbed all the training offered on preventing mosquito breeding in her home and implements it to perfection. I spoke to her last October in a favela in downtown Recife. She described how she diligently washes and covers her stored water tanks and told me that environmental officers even recognized her great efforts. “Congratulations,” they told her during the last inspection.

But, Clara is frustrated.  Her efforts to keep things clean at home seem futile when she looks at what’s happening outside her front door. “I have a flush toilet in the house, and it goes directly into the river. We don’t have any standing water here in the house, but the river is directly behind us.”

The marshy area behind her house is a breeding ground for mosquitos. 

O Brasil não solucionou os já antigos problemas de direitos humanos que permitiram que a epidemia de Zika se intensificasse, deixando sua população vulnerável a futuros surtos e a outros graves riscos de saúde pública. Em maio de 2017, o governo declarou o fim da emergência para o vírus Zika – mas sua ameaça no Brasil permanece.

For the past 10 months, we have been researching the impact of the Zika epidemic on women, girls, and families in northeastern Brazil. We interviewed 183 people, including 98 women and girls, for a new Human Rights Watch report.

The outbreak in Brazil exposed longstanding human rights problems that in turn exacerbated its impact. The Zika virus is most often transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. The warm, humid climate of northeast Brazil, with climate change in the backdrop, is a place where the mosquito thrives. By late 2015 and early 2016, authorities had linked babies born with microcephaly to an outbreak of the virus.

Brazilian authorities faced a reckoning. Decades of underinvestment in public water and wastewater services in this poorest region of the country exacerbated the proliferation of this mosquito. Efforts to control its breeding at the household level—a responsibility that often fell to women and girls—were burdensome and very insufficient.

As the virus raged, women and girls struggled to avoid unplanned pregnancies. Once pregnant, many didn’t get adequate information on how to prevent Zika transmission during pregnancy—causing anxiety and stress.

Criminal penalties for abortion force women and girls who wish to terminate a pregnancy to turn to clandestine, and often unsafe, procedures. Some doctors told us about patients who had used caustic acid or other unsafe methods in the last year to try to induce abortion.

Pregnant women and girls we talked to were scared about contracting Zika. Many, especially from poor communities, said that they couldn’t always afford to use mosquito repellent. And, it’s women from poor communities who typically endure the worst water and wastewater systems and are therefore exposed to more mosquitoes.

Inevitably, then, it’s some of Brazil’s poorest families who are struggling to raise children with Zika syndrome without the support they need. One father told us he had to spend almost his entire monthly salary on medications for his child. Many mothers we spoke with needed to give up their jobs so they could ensure their children had access to services and care—traveling long distances, sometimes daily, to health facilities.

Brazilian health authorities recently declared the Zika emergency over.  But for these communities suffering from inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure, the public health crisis remains.

When governments neglect peoples’ rights—to water, to sanitation, and to health—Zika and other diseases thrive.

The end of an emergency is not a time to relax. Now comes the hard work of preventing the next one.

This article was written by Amanda Klasing, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, and João Bieber, consultant at Human Rights Watch

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

When Honduras parliamentarians this week unanimously passed a bill making child marriage illegal, they took leadership on an issue that deserves urgent attention in Latin America. As momentum builds across the globe to end this abusive practise, Latin America is lagging.

Governments – including Latin American governments – have committed under the United Nations sustainable development goals to eliminate child, early, and forced marriage by 2030. Germany, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, as well as several US states have recently passed laws cracking down on child marriage. Many countries are developing plans for how to end child marriage by 2030.

Latin America has not followed suit – and that’s not because there isn’t a problem there. The region has alarmingly high rates of child marriage. According to UNICEF, in five countries at least 30 percent of girls marry before the age of 18; Nicaragua has the highest rate, at 41 percent, and the others are Brazil, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Honduras. In 11 more countries – Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay – between 20 and 30 percent of girls marry before age 18. These rates rival those in high prevalence countries in Africa and Asia, where more attention has been paid to the issue. Several other countries, including Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, are among the minority of countries not providing data on child marriage to UNICEF.

Latin America is the only region with a high rate of child marriage where there has not been a significant decline in child marriage over the past 30 years. Of the other four countries with rates over 30 percent, all except Guatemala permit marriage before age 18 with parental consent, sometimes as early as 14. Of the eleven countries with rates of child marriage between 20 and 30 percent, eight still legally permit child marriage, typically with parental consent.

Ending child marriage is urgent because it is deeply harmful to children everywhere. Married children often drop out of school, and are locked in poverty as a result. Married girls often become pregnant soon after marriage and early pregnancy involves serious health risks for pregnant girls and their babies. Girls who marry earlier are at higher risk of domestic violence than women who marry as adults.

Enforcing the new law in Honduras – which replaces one permitting children aged 16 and older to marry with permission from their parents – will be the next important step. Too many countries have good laws on the books but fail to enforce them.

For the many other countries in Latin America that need urgently to end child marriage, it is time to follow Honduras’ lead.

Honduras has joining the growing, global movement to relegate the harmful practise of child marriage to the past. Let’s hope other countries across Latin America will follow suit. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Teenage girls are the forgotten victims of Brazil’s Zika outbreak. The virus, transmitted by mosquitos, leaves many babies of mothers infected during pregnancy with lifelong disabilities that require constant care. Because teenage girls in Brazil don’t always get the information they need to prevent pregnancy and have very limited access to abortion in the case of unplanned pregnancy, many of the mothers of children affected by Zika are very young.

One muggy October evening last fall in Paraíba State, Brazil, a round-faced 17-year-old girl—let’s call her Thaís—handed off her 8-month-old daughter to her mother, and turned to talk to me. Thaís gave birth to a baby with Zika syndrome in January 2016, just two months after authorities in Brazil started tracking an unprecedented increase in the number of infants born with microcephaly, a condition in which the baby’s head is smaller than expected, often accompanied by problems with brain development.

Wastewater and garbage are dumped directly into the river in a slum in the Coelhos neighborhood of Recife, Pernambuco state.

© 2016 César Muñoz Acebes/Human Rights Watch

As we sat in the living room of the modest home she shares with her partner, she told me her pregnancy was not planned. Like many people infected with Zika, Thaís never had symptoms of the virus during her pregnancy. However, she lives in a community with longstanding water and sanitation problems. Thaís and her partner only have access to tap water three days a week, so they store water in huge containers.

Mosquitos can breed in stored water if it is not properly covered and maintained. Thaís was careful to cover her water containers, but she lived near an open sewage channel full of dirty, standing water—ideal conditions for mosquito breeding.

Brazil has not addressed longstanding human rights problems that allowed the Zika outbreak to escalate, leaving the population vulnerable to future outbreaks and other serious public health risks. 

“We have a lot of mosquitos,” she told me. “The sewage is not covered, and at night it’s full of mosquitos.” She did not know she had been infected with Zika until after the baby was born. Children born with Zika syndrome, like Thaís’s daughter, often have seizures, difficulty eating, problems with vision and hearing, and other complications.

Zika has already spread to the United States. Mosquitos in parts of Florida and Texas carry the virus and can transmit it to humans. It can also be transmitted sexually, in the US often by people returning from trips to Zika-affected countries. Brazil’s Zika crisis showed just how quickly the virus can spread in the right conditions. The outbreak in Brazil is linked to the birthof thousands of children with Zika syndrome.

Thaís stopped going to school when her daughter was born, though she hopes to go back one day. Now she spends her days battling municipal authorities to get transportation so that she can take her daughter to a specialized rehabilitation center. For teenage mothers like Thaís, getting the services their babies need can be especially difficult.

The Brazilian newspaper Estadão reported that roughly one-quarter of the women and girls who gave birth to babies with microcephaly between November 2015 and September 2016 were under age 20. That’s more than 760 adolescent girls and young women—including 35 girls between 10 and 14—now raising children with Zika syndrome.

Thaís was just one of nearly 100 women and girls my colleagues and I interviewed in northeastern Brazil, the center of the Zika outbreak, for a new report. Many of them had similar stories, but what really moved me were the experiences of girls, still children themselves, trying to prevent pregnancy and protect themselves from Zika. Now some of them are raising children affected by the virus.

More than one-third of Brazil’s population lacks access to a continuous water supply, and nearly half is not connected to a wastewater system, according to the latest data—this means raw sewage is going directly into the environment, often close to homes or open waterways. It’s hopeless for anyone, let alone a teenage mother raising a child, to try to battle mosquitos at home when they also have to deal with these pervasive water and sanitation problems in their communities.

Unplanned pregnancies were common among the young mothers we interviewed. Health services often didn’t give them the clear and accessible basic information about reproductive health that they needed. But nearly 20% of births in Brazil are to girls and young women ages 10 to 19—more than 560,000 births per year. A national survey involving nearly 1,000 young women and girls ages 15 to 19 found that 21% were not using any method of contraception, and only 17% had visited a public health clinic to discuss family planning in the 12 months before the survey.

Women and girls told us they felt “disturbed,” “shocked,” or “desperate,” when they found out they were pregnant. Unfortunately, their choices are limited. Abortion is a punishable crime in Brazil, except in cases of rape, when the life of the woman is at risk, or the fetus has anencephaly—a fatal congenital disorder where the brain doesn’t develop. Women are discouraged from even speaking about abortion. Over and over, the women and girls we interviewed told us they felt that they didn’t have any options except continuing their pregnancies—even when they didn’t want to.

Because of this situation, studies show that hundreds of thousands of women and girls in Brazil risk their health and lives to get clandestine—often unsafe—abortions each year. Doctors told us they had treated women and girls in the last year who had turned to unsafe methods to try to induce abortion. Some of them tried to induce abortion by placing water purification chemicals in their vaginas, causing bleeding ulcerative sores.

More than 900 women have died from unsafe abortion in Brazil since 2005, according to Ministry of Health data. One out of every six of those deaths between 2011 and 2015 was a girl, as young as 10, or a teenager.

One young woman told me she was raped when she was 13, and took pills she bought at a pharmacy to terminate the pregnancy. At the time, she didn’t know that because she was raped she probably could have had a legal abortion. “I didn’t have a lot of information,” she said. “I didn’t know what I could do. I didn’t even tell my mother.” After taking the pills, she experienced heavy bleeding to the point that her clothing was soaked with blood, she told me, shifting in her chair as she spoke. She managed to terminate the pregnancy, but as she described what happened, I kept thinking that she was only 13. Imagine how scared she must have felt; bleeding excessively, not knowing what to do, and afraid to tell anyone.

Being a teenage girl is hard, anywhere. Being a teenage girl without reproductive choices is even harder. Being a teenage mother of a child with Zika syndrome, without adequate support from the government—that’s inexplicably tough. That’s what Thaís and other girls confronting the impacts of the Zika virus outbreak are: warriors, “guerreiras,” as one father called them.

The families raising children with Zika syndrome in Brazil are fighting for the support and services their families need. They struggle to pay for expensive medicines, get to urban centers for services for their children, and continue work or school. One mother told us, “If we don’t go after things, fight for them, there is nothing.” But no one, especially children like Thaís, should have to fight so hard to live or to raise a child safely and with dignity.

The authorities in Brazil should make long overdue investments in water and sanitation infrastructure, provide women and girls with comprehensive reproductive health information and services, decriminalize abortion, and ensure children with Zika syndrome have long-term access to services.

Additionally, the U.S. and other countries should look at what went wrong in Brazil to stop the next Zika crisis from happening.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This submission relates to the review of Guinea under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. It focuses on the issue of the protection of students, teachers, schools, and universities in situations of armed conflict.

As of May 2017, Guinea was contributing 850 troops and 11 staff officers to United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world. Such troops are required to comply with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”

Moreover, the new 2017 Child Protection Policy of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes:

United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children's access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore, recognizing the adverse impact of the use of schools for military purposes, in particular its effects on the safety of children and education personnel, the civilian nature of schools, and the right to education, United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes…

In June 2015, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2225 (2015) on children and armed conflict, which:

Expresses deep concern that the military use of schools in contravention of applicable international law may render schools legitimate targets of attack, thus endangering the safety of children and in this regard encourages Member States to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.

Human Rights Watch believes that an example of such a concrete measure to deter the military use of schools would be for Guinea to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.[1] The Safe Schools Declaration is a political commitment to better protect students, educational staff, schools, and universities during armed conflict. It was drafted through a consultative process led by Norway and Argentina in 2015. The Declaration includes a commitment to use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[2]

As of June 2017, 66 countries—representing more than one third of all UN member states—have already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, including 18 of Guinea’s fellow African Union member states. Indeed, in August 2016, the Peace and Security Council of the African Union “encouraged all Member States that have not yet done so, to sign the Safe Schools’ Declaration.”

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee:

  • Ask whether protections for schools from military use are included in any policies, rules, or pre-deployment trainings for Guinea’s armed forces.
  • Recommend that the government of Guinea endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.

[1] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikl... (accessed October 19, 2016).

[2] Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_... (accessed October 19, 2016).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This week, a United Nations expert committee will review Nigeria’s record concerning women and girls. It will be an opportunity both to endorse Nigeria’s efforts to protect its schoolgirls from abduction and attack, and to urge more action.

Boko Haram, a homegrown Islamist armed group, has for years carried out a campaign of deliberate attacks on girls, teachers, and schools.

“We were in the school when Boko Haram came and started shooting,” killing one boy, 15-year-old “Aisha” told Human Rights Watch in 2016. “They said they will come back if we don’t stop going to school. So the school was closed, and the military came to stay there. But Boko Haram still came back to burn the school.”

Besides such attacks, Human Rights Watch also documented how both Boko Haram and government troops have occupied schools, putting students’ safety and education at risk. The presence of fighters in schools disproportionately affects girls, who are especially exposed to dangers like sexual violence.

But in 2016, when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) asked the Nigerian government about the presence of troops in schools, the government questioned “the source and authenticity of this report.” That’s not good enough. The committee should press the government delegation for a firm answer on whether government forces have been using schools for military purposes.

Nigeria claims an operational code exists preventing their armed forces from using schools. The committee should ask for a copy of it. If such a prohibition exists, it should be recognized as best practice – so long as the military complies with it. Either way the committee should urge the government to protect schools from military use.

Nigeria has taken actions to protect girls that deserve praise. The government has improved security around schools and universities, including through digging ditches around schools; installing security lighting; using sandbags to deter intruders; stationing security personnel at schools; and setting up roadblocks on access roads. It’s also tried to find alternative ways to educate displaced children. Nigeria was also among the first countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment to better protect students, teachers, and schools during war.

All children have the right to an education free from danger. This week, CEDAW can help make this right a reality for Nigerian girls whose education is under attack.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Raquel bathes her daughter Heloisa, a girl with Zika syndrome born in April 2016. Raquel says she cannot afford the medicines her twin daughters need for convulsions. 

© 2017 Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
In May, the Brazilian government declared that the national public health emergency caused by the Zika virus had ended. Yet the underlying conditions that led to the outbreak’s escalation, such as poor water and sanitation conditions that result in fertile breeding grounds for mosquitos, remain unaddressed. While visiting two of the states hardest hit by the virus, researchers Amanda Klasing and Margaret Wurth interviewed more than 180 people – many of them women of reproductive age – to see how the epidemic affected their lives. Nazish Dholakia spoke to the researchers about what they saw, and what the government should do to prevent a resurgence of Zika.

Raquel, 25, holds her daughter Heloisa in Areia, Paraíba state, Brazil. Raquel gave birth to twin daughters with Zika syndrome in April 2016. “I want to give my best to my daughters,” she said in an interview with Human Rights Watch. 

© 2017 Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
What is it like in Recife and Campina Grande, the cities in northeastern Brazil that you visited?

AK: What was shocking to me was the vast inequality. There are these beautiful high-rises and a beautiful beach in Recife, and then there are communities that are really suffering. And Zika is just one way that they are suffering. You have very poor water and sanitation conditions right next to shiny malls. It’s the type of inequality you can see around the world, but you never get used to it.

MW: I was interviewing a pregnant woman, and she was walking me around her community, pointing out how untreated sewage was pooling on the uneven roads right in front and behind her house, and she couldn’t afford to buy insect repellant and protect herself. Her only defense against the mosquitos that were swarming around her community was a fan in her house. Her vulnerability and her inability to protect herself during her pregnancy was really stark.

Did the women and girls you spoke with have information about how to protect themselves?

MW: We interviewed a lot of pregnant women and girls to try to assess what types of information and services they were getting during the outbreak. The one thing that emerged so clearly was that the women and girls we interviewed had very limited information about the sexual transmission of Zika. Even though Zika is transmitted primarily by infected Aedes mosquitos, the virus can also be transmitted sexually, and pregnant women should use condoms with their partners if they’re living in an area with Zika. The women we interviewed had all heard about Zika on the news, and their healthcare providers were talking to them about wearing insect repellant and cleaning up standing water. But very few women knew the virus could be transmitted sexually, so they didn’t know to use condoms with their partners. I told this to one 16-year-old girl, and her jaw dropped because she had never heard of this and had no idea.

AK: It was such a contrast to me how easily we could find information about Zika in preparation for our trip, and how pregnant women living there weren’t given that information or that opportunity to protect themselves.

Brazil has not addressed longstanding human rights problems that allowed the Zika outbreak to escalate, leaving the population vulnerable to future outbreaks and other serious public health risks. 

Why weren’t women – and particularly pregnant women – given this information by their healthcare providers?

AK: At the federal level, there was conflicting information about the possibility of sexual transmission. And that was early on, and sometimes that sets the tone of how much importance to put on it. The possibility of sexual transmission wasn’t being communicated to the clinics or providers in at least one state, and it wasn’t communicated down in a consistent way across the system.

The government said the public health emergency had ended. What does this mean, and what changed so they could make that claim?

MW: The Ministry of Health declared that Zika was no longer a public health emergency of national concern, which doesn’t mean that the virus is gone or that the threat is gone. It basically means that the outbreak of Zika is no longer unusual or unexpected. It no longer meets the World Health Organization’s criteria for a public health crisis. The argument that the Ministry of Health made was that that they have sufficient plans in place to say that this is no longer a national emergency.

Lindasselva lives in a shack in a slum in Olinda, Pernambuco state. There are no sanitation services and she has access to water from only one tap. Mosquitos can breed and proliferate in stored water, if it is not properly covered and maintained. 

© 2016 César Muñoz Acebes/Human Rights Watch
Our fear is that people will hear the announcement and think, “Zika’s over, the risk is gone, I don’t need to worry about this anymore.” When, in fact, the underlying conditions that allowed the virus to spread so rapidly have not been addressed. In 2017, the number of cases of the virus and of children born with Zika syndrome are dramatically lower than they were in the same months in 2016, so that’s encouraging. That shows us something is happening that’s allowing the virus to be better controlled. But the conditions that made the epidemic so severe in the first place have not been fixed.

Why have the numbers dropped dramatically?

AK: It’s hard to determine why. It could be that the use of mosquito-killing pesticides had an effect, that there’s increasing immunity, or that it was a drier season, so the mosquitos haven’t bred. But those are not indicators of long-term success. You only have to look at how other mosquito-borne viruses like dengue and chikungunya have ebbed and then peaked over the years to see that the danger of another Zika epidemic is still there. The underlying conditions that exacerbated the Zika outbreak – failing water and wastewater systems – haven’t been fixed.  The mosquito that carries these viruses is still present in Brazil. For us, the concern is that people will assume the crisis has passed.

A flyer posted at a women’s community group in Passarinhos, a neighborhood in Recife, states, “In the time of Zika, protection and care begin by informing the woman about her reproductive rights.” Paula Viana, executive secretary of Grupo Curumim, a feminist organization in Pernambuco that was involved in designing the flyer, told Human Rights Watch, “There are no government campaigns talking about women’s rights on the Zika issue. It’s all about the mosquito. The message to women is you have to clean your house or don’t get pregnant.”

© 2016 Amanda Klasing/Human Rights Watch
What steps has the government taken to address the virus?

MW: They put a lot of resources and efforts into trying to control the mosquito population. But this was largely focused on the household level, and visits by environmental agents to check water storage containers. The missing piece, and our main argument in the report, is that this response did not include making sure people have consistent access to running water, so they don’t have to store water in ways that lead to mosquito breeding, and facilities to treat human waste. And it’s tough, because Brazil is facing one of the worst economic recessions that it’s seen in decades. But even in times of economic growth, the investments in the water and sanitation infrastructure were inadequate.

What concrete steps can the government take to help parents raising children with Zika?

MW: In families raising children with Zika syndrome, the caregivers are overwhelmingly the mothers. The lives of these women and girls are profoundly affected by raising children without the support they need. They are juggling lots of appointments and battling local municipal authorities to get the types of tests and consultations that their children need. Their lives are extremely chaotic. Also, families living in rural areas sometimes have to leave their houses at 3 or 4 in the morning to take their children to doctor’s appointments in cities, a demanding and exhausting routine for them. For some families, it’s waiting for public transportation that never comes and scrambling to find another way to get to the appointment.

The government should make it easier for these families to get the services their children need. The Brazilian public health system can decentralize services so that rural families can find them – or, at least, the services that their children need most often – closer to home.

AK: For example, the government can make some services – like physical therapy and occupational therapy – more accessible, even with the current fiscal restrictions, by reorganizing the services geographically.

MW: I think there was a real fear among some of the parents we interviewed that, as the news of Zika faded from the headlines, their children would be forgotten. As time goes on, their children are still going to need services. A lot of families were worried that they won’t have the long-term support they need.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Raquel, 25, holds her daughter Heloisa in Areia, Paraíba state, Brazil. Raquel gave birth to twin daughters with Zika syndrome in April 2016. “I want to give my best to my daughters,” she said in an interview with Human Rights Watch.

© 2017 Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

(São Paulo) – Brazil has not addressed longstanding human rights problems that allowed the Zika outbreak to escalate, leaving the population vulnerable to future outbreaks and other serious public health risks, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government declared an end to the national public health emergency related to the Zika virus in May 2017, but the Zika threat in Brazil remains.

The 103-page report, “Neglected and Unprotected: The Impact of the Zika Outbreak on Women and Girls in Northeastern Brazil,” documents gaps in the Brazilian authorities’ response that have a harmful impact on women and girls and leave the general population vulnerable to continued outbreaks of serious mosquito-borne illnesses. The outbreak hit as the country faced its worst economic recession in decades, forcing authorities to make difficult decisions about allocating resources. But even in earlier times of economic growth, government investments in water and sanitation infrastructure were inadequate. Years of neglect contributed to the water and wastewater conditions that allowed the proliferation of the Aedes mosquito and the rapid spread of the virus, Human Rights Watch found.

Brazil has not addressed longstanding human rights problems that allowed the Zika outbreak to escalate, leaving the population vulnerable to future outbreaks and other serious public health risks. 

“Brazilians may see the Health Ministry’s declaration of the end of the Zika emergency as a victory, but significant risks remain as do the underlying rights issues it exposed,” said Amanda Klasing, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report. “Brazilians’ basic rights are at risk if the government doesn’t reduce mosquito infestation over the long term, secure access to reproductive rights, and support families raising children affected by Zika.”

The announcement came 18 months after the government declared Zika a national emergency, as increasing numbers of infants were born with microcephaly – a condition in which the infant’s head is smaller than expected – and other potential health problems, together now known as Zika syndrome. But Aedes mosquitos are still present in Brazil, and still carry Zika and other serious viruses. A recent outbreak of yellow fever, which can be spread by the same mosquito, has killed at least 240 people in Brazil since December 2016. Climatic phenomena, like the 2015 El Niño, with the backdrop of climate change and steadily rising temperatures, may contribute to the more rapid spread of mosquito-borne illnesses.

Brazilian authorities should make long overdue investments in water and sanitation infrastructure to control mosquito breeding and improve public health, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should also provide comprehensive reproductive health information and services for women and girls, decriminalize abortion, and ensure children with Zika syndrome have long-term access to services to give them the best possible quality of life.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 183 people in Pernambuco and Paraíba, two of the northeastern states hardest hit by the virus, including 98 women and girls ages 15 to 63. Forty-four of these women were pregnant or had recently given birth, and 30 were raising children with Zika syndrome. Human Rights Watch also spoke to men and boys in affected communities, service providers and other experts, and government authorities, and analyzed government and other data on health surveillance, water and wastewater assets, and budgets.

In response to the Zika outbreak, Brazilian authorities have encouraged household-level efforts such as cleaning water storage containers and eliminating standing water in homes. Women and girls are often the ones responsible for these tasks, but their efforts are burdensome and cannot fill the considerable gap left by inadequate government action. The authorities have failed to make necessary investments in water and sanitation infrastructure for long-term control of mosquito breeding and to improve public health.

More than one-third of Brazil’s population lacks access to a continuous water supply. That leaves people with no choice but to fill tanks and other containers with water for household use, which can unintentionally become potential mosquito breeding grounds if left uncovered and untreated. Poor wastewater infrastructure creates standing water in communities. More than 35 million people in Brazil lack adequate facilities and services for the safe disposal of human waste. Only an estimated 50 percent of the population was connected to a wastewater system in 2015, and less than 43 percent of the country’s total volume of wastewater was treated. In Brazil’s northeast in 2015, less than 25 percent of the population was connected to a wastewater system, and only 32 percent of wastewater was treated.

Human Rights Watch saw untreated sewage flowing into open, uncovered channels, storm drains, roads, or waterways near communities that are often obstructed with debris, creating dirty, standing water – ideal conditions for mosquito breeding.

In the areas studied, some women and girls did not have access to comprehensive reproductive health information and services through the public health system. Many cannot avoid unplanned pregnancies or make informed decisions about their pregnancies.

Criminal penalties for abortion force pregnant women and girls to turn to clandestine, and often unsafe, procedures to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Some doctors said they had treated women and girls in the last year who had turned to caustic acid or other unsafe methods to try to induce abortion. One 23-year-old woman who was raped as an adolescent and had heavy bleeding after a clandestine abortion said, “I didn’t have a lot of information… I bled a lot.”

Unsafe abortion remains the fourth-leading cause of maternal mortality in Brazil. Since 2005, more than 900 women have died from unsafe abortion in Brazil – largely preventable maternal deaths. The risk of Zika infection during pregnancy will likely lead even more women to seek unsafe and clandestine abortions. A July 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found a 108 percent increase in abortion requests from Brazil received by Women on Web – a nonprofit organization providing abortion medication in countries where safe abortion services are highly restricted – following a November 2015 Pan American Health Organization announcement related to Zika virus risks.

Many pregnant women and girls interviewed said that during their prenatal appointments, public health workers did not provide comprehensive information about preventing Zika transmission. Many said health workers didn’t inform them that Zika could be transmitted sexually, partially due to conflicting or inconsistent information from authorities. As a result, few were consistently using condoms to protect themselves and their fetus from Zika transmission.

Pregnant women from low-income households that typically have the worst water and wastewater systems and high exposure to mosquitos said they did not have the means to purchase mosquito repellent for everyday use.

More than 2,600 children in Brazil born with microcephaly and other conditions from the Zika virus will need long-term support. Their primary caregivers often don’t receive the full support they need from the government and society to raise their children with disabilities, including financial and logistical support to make care accessible. Mothers raising children with Zika syndrome said they found it hard to get information and support both at the time of delivery, and as their children grew and developed. Health providers and parents of children with Zika syndrome said that fathers needed additional support to actively participate in caregiving.

One father told Human Rights Watch he had to spend almost his entire monthly salary on medications for his child with Zika syndrome.

In 2017, the number of Zika cases, and the number of infants born with disabilities linked to the virus, dropped dramatically as compared to the same period in 2016, but authorities cannot identify the cause of the reduction in cases.

“As mosquito season amps up in parts of the Americas and the United States, other Zika-affected countries should recognize that human rights problems can contribute to the rapid escalation and impact of the Zika epidemic,” Klasing said. “Countries hoping to avoid the crisis Brazil continues to face should address human rights issues at the outset of their planning and response.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am